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Dr Stephen Pumfrey, Department of History, Furness College, Lancaster University, LA1 4YG UK
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Gilbert's England

William Gilbert (1544-1603) was 14 when Elizabeth was crowned in 1558. He died on November 30th 1603, only a few months after the queen whom he had risen to serve as royal physician. He was an Elizabethan, and many aspects of his life and work reflect the Elizabethan age.


Gilbert had the luck to live in an era when the English economy underwent sustained growth. This is the main reason why Elizabeth’s reign saw England become a significant power on the international stage. A major source of that growth was the wool industry, in particular the flourishing export trade with continental Europe. Gilbert was born in Colchester, Essex, a wool town which had boomed to become England’s 12th richest in 1524.

Trade links, coupled with the difficulties of travel overland, meant that Colchester was surprisingly well-connected by sea with both London and Europe. Gilbert would have travelled between Colchester and London by boat. He thereby acquired knowledge of sailing, and he knew the tides and winds along the route. Colchester was better connected with Holland than with northern or western England. Indeed, from the 1550s Protestants fled to England from the Spanish Hapsburg armies in the Low Countries, and many Flemish weavers settled in Colchester, forming a “Dutch Quarter” and a visible sign of religious persecution.

Government revenues had also been greatly augmented by the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, with the sale of confiscated land to royal favourites and clerical incomes redirected from the pope to the monarch. Some of this wealth funded the Tudor expansion of government and the availability of offices. Gilbert’s father Jerome took his place in the expanding legal system as a minor judge, the recorder of Colchester.


The education system also expanded, given the greater need for administrators, the expansion of middle-class families looking to advance their sons and the disposable income to fund education. If he was not privately tutored, Gilbert probably went to Colchester Grammar School, chartered in 1539 and one of many to be set up or expanded at the time. He went on St John’s College, Cambridge, a relatively new foundation (1511) which contributed to the Tudor expansion of places at university. He followed a curriculum reformed by Henry VIII which was less ecclesiastical and scholastic and more humanistic.  More importance was also given to mathematics, and Gilbert’s first (though very junior) position was as a mathematics examiner at St. John’s.


Gilbert’s adolescence was a time of religious tension, upheaval and violence. Henry VIII’s politically expedient reformation and creation of a Church of England became more radical when his son became Edward VI in 1547. When he died in 1553, his half-sister Mary re-imposed Catholicism and married Philip, the future king of Spain. Despite her unexpected accession to the throne in 1558, Elizabeth established a fragile but enduring stability based on a moderate Protestantism, and vigilance against foreign-backed Catholic agitators and home-grown “puritans”, or radical Protestants, who were particularly strong in Gilbert’s home county of Essex. Indeed, Gilbert’s adult life coincided with a period of relative religious calm between those of the English Reformation and the English Civil War. He disapproved of trouble-making by those he called “pulpit-hornets”.

International Politics

By contrast, international politics were far from calm. Spain had replaced France as the opponent of England’s growing power. Antagonism was exacerbated by the determination of Mary’s widower, now Philip II, to enforce the pope’s declaration in 1570 that Elizabeth was an illegitimate ruler, and to invade and depose her. England’s defiance of Spain, famously demonstrated by its defeat of Philip’s Armada in 1588, had an earlier expression in a less effective expeditionary force sent to protect the Protestant Dutch Republic.

Following the discovery of the “new world” of America in 1492 by the Spanish-backed Genoese adventurer Cristoforo Colon (Columbus), the pope divided it between Spain, which got the Western hemisphere (e.g. Mexico) and Portugal, which acquired the Eastern half (e.g. Sri Lanka). By the 1550s England had entered the race to colonise some of these trans-oceanic lands, helped by defectors such as Sebastian Cabot. Gradually, England produced its own maritime experts such as William Borough and Edward Wright, who would help Gilbert with his researches. The skill of English practitioners now rivalled that of their Dutch and Flemish allies. Wright learned from and shared ideas with them, but also had some of his work plagiarized by them.


Although privateers raided Spanish treasure fleets in equatorial regions, English attempts to establish colonies in America had to focus on northern latitudes, which were less attractive and less defended by the Spanish.  This is why Raleigh established his colony of Virginia (named after Elizabeth, the virgin queen) in a latitude where winters are harsh, and why explorers such as William Baffin would perish in the Arctic wastes of Canada or Russia, as they sought a North-West or North-East passage to Asia and India. In terms of international trade these would have been very strategic and lucrative (and will be if or when global warming opens them up).

It is surprising that Spain’s enormous, heavily-funded and state-trained Armada, developed to protect its new world empire, was repelled by England’s small and diverse navy in 1588. Many ships were supplied by individual privateers such as Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, and the Earl of Cumberland. They recruited bright university-educated talents as technical advisors. The Earl of Cumberland patronised Edward Wright, and Sir Walter Raleigh had Thomas Harriot as his client. These networks seem to have generated more innovations in maritime than the state-employed Spanish experts. Certainly the English ships had much greater speed and firepower than the Armada’s troop carriers. These capacities were useful for the piratical raids they mounted on Spanish treasure ships.

London was the centre of many Elizabethan successes, and it was certainly the focus of this newly thriving and confident maritime industry. Ambitious young talents like Gabriel Harvey, Thomas Harriot and Gilbert were drawn away from traditional university careers to the exciting but unpredictable opportunities provided in London by rich courtiers and merchants. Gilbert was appointed a physician to the Royal Navy, visited Deptford dockyard, met Sir Francis Drake and the circumnavigator Thomas Cavendish, and made contact with experts like Edward Wright. The reports of explorers, the heroic astronauts of their day, provided Gilbert with information he needed about the nature of the entire surface of the earth.


During Gilbert’s lifetime the population of London quadrupled to nearly a quarter of a million, ten times bigger than any other English city. The expansion was driven by London’s emergence as an international commercial centre, especially after the Spanish sacked Antwerp during the Dutch Revolt. The Muscovy Company was set up in 1555, and the (British) East India Company in 1600; trade with the Americas also grew. The elite increased their fortunes (e.g. the Cecils), and some made fortunes (e.g. Raleigh and Sir Thomas Gresham, founder of Gresham College and the Royal Exchange). Occasionally they lost them in ill advised investments or adventures (e.g. Cumberland). Of one privateering episode, Gilbert drily predicted that the booty would need only a “well-sadled rat” to carry it home.

London was big and rich enough to support numerous practitioners of many professions. It was the obvious destination for an ambitious physician, and Gilbert rose rapidly once he arrived. He served several privy counsellors, including William Cecil, Lord Treasurer Burleigh. In 1600 he was chosen to be president of the London (now Royal) College of Physicians and also to become a royal physician. William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood in 1615, followed a similar path from Cambridge to London and the court.


The vibrancy of culture in Elizabethan London is best known through its flourishing theatre, and the enduring plays of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlow and Ben Jonson. The theatres were mostly situated in poor areas outside the boundaries and jurisdiction of the City of London, for example on the south bank of the River Thames where the reconstructed Globe Theatre stands. The Globe was only a short walk over London Bridge, or a quick trip in a ferry, from Gilbert’s house near St Paul’s Cathedral.

We do not know if Gilbert frequented the theatre, but playwrights made up-to-the-minute references to intellectual developments such as Copernican astronomy and, in Jonson’s play “The Magnetick Lady”, we have a whole work employing terms from Gilbert’s magnetic philosophy. Topical references were especially relevant when the plays were performed to the court in the Palace of Whitehall, in Westminster. Early modern courts were fertile places for exchanging new ideas, and Gilbert surely benefited from the contacts he made.


The scientific culture of Elizabethan England was growing too. The universities, Oxford and Cambridge, were not at the cutting edge of Renaissance thought and practice, especially in Gilbert’s field of medicine: Harvey left Cambridge to take his M.D. at the celebrated University of Padua in the Venetian Republic. Nevertheless, Oxbridge boasted tutors who taught new ideas in philosophy and mathematics to young gentlemen on a private basis. At Oxford, John Case had an international reputation in the conventional Aristotelian philosophy, while Henry Savile gave advanced lectures on astronomy, including Copernicanism (which he did not accept).

The generation before Gilbert had begun to produce innovators more oriented towards the court than the colleges. There was the Heidelberg-educated physician and cartographer William Cuningham, the gentleman-mathematicians Leonard and Thomas Digges, and the polymathic occultist John Dee, sometimes branded as “the Queen’s conjuror”. Thomas Digges may have influenced Gilbert to conclude that the universe was Copernican and infinite. All these men were clients of noble courtiers like William Cecil, Robert Dudley or, in the case of Gilbert’s contemporary Thomas Harriot, Henry Percy, the “Wizard” Earl of Northumberland.

Once again London’s thriving manufacturing and commercial communities were influential. It has been argued that these communities, with their commitment to useful and profitable knowledge, practical experiment and exchange of information foreshadowed some of the revolutionary attitudes to science promoted by Francis Bacon, the Elizabethan and Jacobean statesman and philosopher of science. Gilbert certainly admired and learned from such men, notably the uneducated seaman turned compass maker Robert Norman, while Bacon knew of and used Gilbert’s work.


It was not a “Golden Age” for the vast majority of Elizabeth’s subjects, who struggled to make a living. The years 1595-8 were years of severe famine. Ordinary people were left wrong-footed, if not persecuted, by the switches in official religious policy which began with Elizabeth’s father. The vast majority were illiterate and knew little of the world beyond their locality except what they gathered from sermons. Much of the metropolis around the city of London was filthy and lawless.

By contrast, Gilbert belonged to a large number of newly rich, well-educated and well-connected professionals. They were confident that, led by Elizabeth, England was on the crest of a wave of progress, and that the English had something vibrant and valuable to contribute to the world. Chroniclers such as William Harrison and Richard Hakluyt wove narratives of England’s rise to greatness. Francis Bacon captured this spirit in his motto “plus ultra”: go still further, beyond the geographical and intellectual limits set by tradition and Graeco-Roman philosophy.

Gilbert certainly went “plus ultra” with the new magnetic philosophy he outlined in his book De Magnete of 1600. He dismissed the Aristotelian science he had learned and taught at university. He praised the new knowledge of Elizabethan navigation experts like Norman and Wright and combined it with the cosmological boldness of Dee and Digges. He provided an experimentally grounded understanding of the earth as a giant magnet which he, Wright and numerous followers believed also proved that the Earth was rotated in space by its magnetic forces. This theory brought him acclaim from the likes of Galileo and Kepler, but also vilification by conservative Catholic philosophers. De Magnete established Gilbert as an international figure, but he was nonetheless a product of Elizabethan England.

©Stephen Pumfrey, November 2011.

Selected Reading

Simon Adams, Elizabeth I: the Outcast who became England’s Queen (National Geographic Society, 2008).
Deborah Harkness, The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (Yale University Press, 2007).
Liza Picard, Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London (St Martin’s Press, 2005).
Stephen Pumfrey, Latitude: The True Story of Elizabeth I’s Man of Science (Icon Books, 2002).
J.A. Sharpe, Early Modern England: a Social History, 1550-1760 (2nd ed., Arnold, 1997).
Lawrence Stone, The Educational Revolution in England, 1560-1640 (Past and Present, 1960).

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